The Gracie Train Rolls On
Mario Sperry and the rest of the Carlson Gracie Arrebentacao Team never fought for money. They couldn’t have. In the mid-1990s, without the big money sponsorships that there are nowadays, earning a living from mixed martial arts was a pipe dream. Instead, fighting was about respect.
“For us, it wasn’t just to defend our own ego in a fight or a tournament,” Sperry says. “We were defending Carlson’s name, his team, and our den of champions.”
And whether they realize it or not, countless MMA fighters are still defending the name of Carlson Gracie. It’s evident across the spectrum of MMA, from the days of Brazilian Top Team’s dominance in Pride to the UFC fighters who hone their grappling at American Top Team, from José Aldo’s reign under Nova Uniao founder Andre Pederneiras to Vitor Belfort’s looming UFC Middleweight Title bid. Carlson Gracie taught his brand of jiu-jitsu to a very special crew of black belts, who, in turn, spread his philosophies through both fighting and teaching.
Born in 1935, Carlson was the oldest son of the Gracie patriarch, Carlos. While his uncle Helio Gracie became famous for winning fights off of his back, Carlson’s style centered on guard passing, top control, and aggression. “Rice and beans was the name of his game,” says Murilo Bustamante, who earned his black belt under Carlson in 1988. “It’s simple, but it works.” It was battle tested, too. Carlson fought 19 vale tudos during the 1950s and 1960s.
The consensus is that Carlson was unhappy with factions in the Gracie family that saved their best techniques for their kin. “Carlson was the first one to really teach jiu-jitsu in a competitive way, in an intense way, for people that were not from his own family,” Sperry says. In 1968, he established his two-floor academy in Copacabana. The academy turned individuals from all backgrounds—judo champions (Sperry), surfers (Bustamante), and borderline maniacs (Wallid Ismail)—into top-flight black belts. Carlson instilled in his students a ceaseless drive to win at all costs, and the team steam rolled its competition in tournaments.
Meanwhile, Luta Livre, a homegrown striking and grappling art,had been a rival of jiu-jitsu for decades. In fact, Carlson’s lone Vale Tudo loss came at the hands of Luta Livre stylist Euclides Pereira. Through the 1980s, a cocktail of loyalty and testosterone provoked occasional street fights and constant tension between Rio’s jiu-jitsu and luta livre practitioners. The quarrel was resolved in September 1991 at the Desafio: Jiu-Jitsu vs. Luta Livre event. Carlson’s students Bustamante, Ismail, and Fabio Gurgel triumphed over their Luta Livre opponents, and the popularity of jiu-jitsu in Rio surged.
“Carlson trained his team to beat anybody,” Ricardo Liborio says.“He geared training toward Vale Tudo at a time when there wasn’t a big market. After the UFC came up, Carlson’s team grew right away because we were already training for it.”
As wrestlers and strikers got wise to the evolving sport of MMA, the guard became a precarious position. But Carlson’s team found success in no holds barred competition by getting on top. They could punch effectively, latch on submissions, and catch their breath without getting their heads split open. Beyond hard grappling training, many of Carlson’s fighters trained boxing and Muay Thai to get their striking up to par.
Ismail and Sperry brought new conditioning regimens to their teammates. “Most of the Gracies opposed weightlifting,” Sperry says, “but if you are strong and you have technique, you are unbeatable.” Behemoth wrestlers like Mark Kerr vividly illustrated this fact, and Carlson quickly grew to support his students’ extracurricular lifting.
Throughout the 1990s, the Carlson Gracie Arrebentacao Team fought in the UFC and elsewhere. Its members were dominant in their victories, humbled in their losses, and always refining ways to apply jiu-jitsu to MMA. They crushed the tournament circuit, too: Amaury Bitetti, Sperry, Gurgel, and Liborio all finished first in their divisions at the inaugural World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in 1996.
“When I had Carlson training me for a tournament, I used to run through my opponents like it was nothing, man,” says Marcos da Matta, a decorated BJJ competitor and head MMA coach at American Top Team. “He was such a presence.”
But by this time, Carlson was rarely a presence in the same country as his team. He had opened an academy in Chicago and began spending more time stateside training the young Vitor Belfort, while Bustamante ran training sessions back in Rio.
Belfort was the first to split in 1999. The following year, Carlson approached his students with a contract entitling him to 30% of his fighters’ purses. His students were leery of the agreement and countered with stipulations that Carlson return to Brazil to train them before a fight. Carlson rejected the compromise. When Bustamante traveled to Japan to fight Yoji Anjo in April 2000, Carlson expelled him along with Liborio, Sperry, and Roberto “Bebeo” Duarte, the core of the group. Some, like Ismail, remained with Carlson.Others, like da Matta, left to join Bustamante and company.
The years since the split have been legendary for all parties. Brazilian Top Team became a fixture of Pride and reared champions like the Nogueira brothers, while Bustamante captured the UFC Middleweight Title. In 2001, Liborio established American Top Team. Carlson opened a network of jiu-jitsu schools—now run by his son—and even had a cameo in one of the defining moments of modern MMA:Carlson was in Stephan Bonnar’s corner during his 2005 TUF battle against Forrest Griffin.
By the time he passed away in February 2006, some of Carlson’s students had made peace with him. Some had not. But all still revere their longtime mentor, grateful that he gave them the ability to earn a living from jiu-jitsu, and no one denies how important he remains to them today. “Life keeps going,” Liborio says, “but you just can’t forget where you came from.”